Insiders: The Battle Between Gay Rights and Religious Freedom

Gay Same Sex Marriage
Posted at 11:00 PM, Aug 13, 2015
and last updated 2017-12-13 05:24:32-05

TALLAHASSEE, FL (WTXL) -- Earlier this year, the Supreme Court voted to give same-sex couples across the country the right to marry. The decision was hailed by many as progressive and fair. Others criticized the Court for attacking religious freedom.

The Supreme Court's decision has been called "historic," a defining moment in our nation's history, as the gay rights movement continues to push for equality. Gay couples in North Florida and South Georgia say it's about time the country legalized marriage, but some in the area say the Court got it wrong and claim they're the ones now under attack.

For Tallahassee couple Nick and Brandon Mahaffey, the connection was instant.

"You know they always say that, if you find the right person that you're going to be with for the rest of your life, you're going to know immediately? That's just how it was," said Nick Mahaffey.

The two have been together for two years, tying the knot on January 10, 2015, a few days after gay marriage was legalized in Florida.

"It was like a big weight lifted off your shoulders," Brandon Mahaffey said. "We can be who we are and not hide behind this curtain."

"To know we can go anywhere in the country and our marriage be legal still is amazing," Nick Mahaffey said.

The Mahaffeys say Leon County has been a welcoming and supportive place to live. But even so, their journey hit a road block when Nick's request for a new social security card was delayed after changing his last name.

"I wouldn't say it was trouble for us," Nick Mahaffey said. "Was it disappointing that it couldn't happen immediately like we wanted it to? Yeah, it was."

Nick says it took a few weeks to process, because the system hadn't been updated at the time they got their marriage license. Despite the delay, the Mahaffeys say getting married gives them peace of mind.

"If he gets put in a hospital, I don't know what I would've done if I wouldn't have been able to be in that room," Nick Mahaffey said.

Gay couples in Florida were able to get married starting in January 2015, while couples in Georgia had to wait until the Supreme Court's decision. But despite the fact that same-sex marriage is now legal in all 50 states, there are those in this area who are disappointed with the Supreme Court's ruling, claiming it clashes with their religious beliefs.

"A person is not born gay," said Pam Olsen, the executive director of Tallahassee's International House of Prayer. She says marriage is an idea created by God, and people can't choose what it means.

"They're the Supreme Court. They're not the Supreme Being," Olsen said. "Rearranging and redefining marriage based on people's sexual preferences is wrong in our society, because where does it stop?"

The Court's decision also concerns some lawmakers in Florida. State Senator Aaron Bean is co-sponsoring the Pastor Protection Act.

"It's sad that we're here," Bean said. "But in the age of where we are, we want to make sure that our religious institutions, particularly our pastors, are protected when they choose who to marry."

Senator Bean says several pastors across Florida have called for legal protection. The bill would prohibit gay couples from suing pastors for choosing not to marry them.

"I'm looking forward to a unanimous vote to say religious freedom is the basis of what our country was founded on, and certainly Florida has enjoyed religious freedom here, too," Bean said. "We want to keep it that way."

"I would rather see a religious freedom bill that not only covers pastors but adoption agencies," Olsen said. "I'd like to see it cover anyone that can stand on religious freedom."

But legislation like the Pastor Protection Act worries local gay rights advocates. Jim Van Riper and his husband were among the first in Tallahassee to get married. Van Riper, who works with Equality Florida, says religious freedom bills are a license to discriminate.

"While we have local ordinances protecting people from discrimination here in Leon County, that's not the case all over the state of Florida," Van Riper said. "Only about 54 percent of the population is covered by such a non-discrimination ordinance."

The Mahaffeys say they haven't faced any particular problems, and they don't expect any issues when they plan on starting a family. Florida's ban on gay adoption was lifted in July 2015, after nearly four decades.

"We're kinda looking to go ahead and get started here fairly soon," Nick Mahaffey said. "Neither one of us are getting younger."

The two say they want to make sure their children live in an accepting environment, one that Nick wishes he had growing up. Only his brother came from his family to the Mahaffey's wedding reception in April, but having someone there meant so much.

"It was like we had just seen each other yesterday," Nick Mahaffey said, fighting through tears. "It's good to have that family in my life again."

The two say they hope future couples realize how important their rights are, even though marriage is now legal.

"It wasn't always there. It was something that we had to fight for and that we do have now," Nick Mahaffey said. "If you're going to get married, you need to respect it."

The Mahaffeys say they're figuring out if they want to adopt or to have a surrogate.

As for the Pastor Protection Act, Senator Bean is introducing the bill to be considered for the 2016 legislative session. He says he's received thousands of signatures from petitions in support of the bill.